When I was growing up in suburban California, whenever my high school baseball team had an away game in farm country north of San Francisco, as soon as we passed the first cow pasture some wiseass in the back of the bus would break out an imaginary banjo and start into the theme song from Deliverance.
This was the 1980s, so we were too young to have seen the 1972 film, and I’m sure none of us had read the classic James Dickey novel on which it was based. Still, the infamous Dueling Banjos scene from the movie was by then such a part of American pop culture that the brief banjo riff had become, for kids like us, a kind of snarky shorthand for “rural” and “backward.” Each time, the joke would spread outward from the back of the bus until half the team was picking imaginary banjos, all of us cracking up at these inbred hillbillies who would within a few hours beat the tar out of us soft suburban boys at baseball.
I thought of those long bus rides, and that banjo tune, when I recently picked up Deliverance for a book club I belong to. Weeks later, the tune is still in my head, but it has curdled into something far darker and more sinister in light of the brilliant, troubling novel that helped ingrain it into American culture.
In the book, as in the movie, four bored suburban guys from an unnamed Southern city take a weekend canoeing trip down a remote stretch of wild river slated to be dammed to make way for a reservoir. One of them, an avid outdoorsman named Lewis—played by a beefed-up Burt Reynolds in the movie—knows a little about the backcountry, but the others can barely tell a canoe paddle from a slotted spoon.
One of the more remarkable qualities of Deliverance is how much the experience of reading it mirrors that of a river trip gone horribly wrong. For the first 90 pages or so, the narrative floats merrily along as the four soft suburbanites set off on their journey into country they know nothing about on a river they have neither the skills nor the equipment to navigate. Dickey is a master at building suspense, and one feels it building, building, building, like the low roar of an upcoming rapids, as Lewis natters on about his survivalist fantasies and the narrator, Ed Gentry, a semi-successful ad man back in the city, dreams of killing his first deer with a bow and arrow.
When Deliverance was first published in 1970, before the dueling banjos and the unforgettable sight of flabby, naked Ned Beatty squealing like a pig had become cultural touchstones, readers could be forgiven for assuming that the menace the men face would come from nature—a wild bear attack, a torrential rainstorm that swamps their canoes. I am not that reader. I have seen the movie and I even read the book once before many years ago, yet still it startled me when, on page 94 of my ancient Dell paperback, two armed men step out of the forest and kidnap Ed and his flabby, hapless friend Bobby.
Until that moment, Deliverance is a well written, if somewhat talky novel about four suburban idiots on a camping trip. From that moment on, the novel is a perfectly realized parable of Southern manhood in a time of great cultural change. For 94 pages, Dickey bangs the reader over the head with how suburban life, with its wall-to-wall carpeting and shopping malls, has emasculated these four sons of the South and the fantasy they’ve built for themselves about how a weekend in one of the last remaining pockets of Southern wildness will untame them.
Then, in the blink of an eye, one of their number suffers the ultimate emasculation when he is raped at gunpoint by a pair of toothless hillbillies, and the four suburbanites return to a state of nature where they must kill or be killed. The novel’s themes of manhood and leadership and the will to survive at all costs, which Dickey has kept dammed up under endless pages of talk and rambling narrative observation, are released by the abrupt, shocking sight of a man being raped by another man—and for another taut, marvelously rendered 130 pages all the reader can do is hold on for dear life as Dickey shoots rapid after rapid in this wild, neo-Southern Gothic adventure tale.
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The joke is that you know you’re in Real America™ when the IHOPs turn into Waffle Houses. The truth is that you know you’re in Real America™ when everybody’s so dadgum nice that they leave their doors unlocked. Real America™ is where food is fried and guns can be bought on layaway. It’s where opening a bar tab means setting $20 on the counter and drinking ‘til it’s gone.
I’ve been to Real America™; my family lives there.
Growing up, we’d visit them in Perry County — and make no mistake: the county is more important than the state in Real America™ — to drive ATVs around an ancient farm house next to a lake, or a river, or some big body of water rife with bullfrogs. You learn early in Real America™ that the best way to catch one of those suckers is to shine a flashlight in its eyes, paralyzing it, while your youngest cousin snatches its slimy toadskin from behind.
The thing you have to remember about Real America™ is that it’s different from the rest of America. The other thing you have to remember is that for all its charms, Real America™ has secrets, too.
Those houses with their doors unlocked? Their owners keep shotguns to be safe. That farmhouse you’ve visited since you were a kid? Its previous owner hanged himself in the garage. The bullfrog you caught with your cousins? You put it into Tupperware last night, and you knew you were supposed to poke holes in the top for air, but you didn’t because something inside you wanted to see it die.
The food is fried because it’s cooked with love, and love is a synonym for lard, and lard will kill you.
Real America™ is where you get your first kiss, but also your first black eye. It’s where your uncle sets off fireworks each year on the Fourth of July until your family stops inviting him because of something the aunts won’t talk about.
This in mind, I nominate Scott McClanahan as the Poet Laureate of Real America™. He knows all this and more about Real America™ because he was raised in the crucible of a West Virginian holler. For him, Real America™ is less about folk songs, pick-up trucks, and girls in sundresses than it is about pulmonary trauma, Medicaid fraud, and Duke’s mayonnaise. This is not to say that his version of the place is without its chivalry, though: McClanahan’s version of communal giving is a group of trapped coal miners all pledging to conserve oxygen for the youngest laborer, each vowing to die because that guy stands a chance.
As such, McClanahan is the author of two of the most affecting books I’ve read all year: Crapalachia and Hill William. A mostly-true memoir on the one hand, and a mostly-nonfictional novel on the other, these two works have stuck to my sides for months. I’ve dreamed about them. I’ve chewed on them like the cartilage knuckle on a fried chicken wing.
Both works inhabit a universe based on the rural towns and mountains where McClanahan grew up. Some facts have been changed, but the gist remains faithful. (When you’re talking about Real America™, after all, emotions are truths and facts are distractions.) Together, the books complement one another in such a way that they present the most unified, singular, and altogether honest account of life in these parts of the country as you’ll ever find. Less concerned with sentimentalizing than with truth-telling, McClanahan peels back the hardened scabs on Appalachian life to reveal the supple, sensitive wounds beneath.
In McClanahan’s own words: “I never look at a painting and ask, ‘Is this painting fictional or non-fictional?’ It’s just a painting.”
Now, to be honest with myself is to admit that there is no way I can convey the effect of these books without giving too much away — a practice I hate in book reviews — and so in lieu of summary or sustained criticism, I’d like to instead present a brief road map for you to interpret on your own, as well as a few selected passages so the books can speak in their own words.
My first direction is that Crapalachia is the funnier of the two. While there’s ample death and mourning in its pages, it feels lighter than Hill William. It contains passages like this one:
“The next night was radio preacher night. That only meant one thing. My Uncle Nathan [who had cerebral palsy] was going to drink beer. He just kept groaning and pointing at the beer and then pointing at his feeding tube. What was the use of drinking beer when you could immediately pour a six-pack in your stomach tube and have it shoot into your bloodstream that much quicker? I poured the beer in and then I poured another. I cracked another and another. Then I did the rest. He smiled and then burped. It smelled like a beer burp.”
My second piece of advice is that Hill William answers a question nobody has ever asked: what would happen if William Blake binge-watched Hoarders and then wrote Deliverance? How’s this for an Appalachian dream vision?
“So I walked to the top of the mountain and I looked up towards the clouds. The sky was streaked with purple and pink. I kept looking and then I saw something. I saw hundreds of dirty angels in the sky. They were flying angels but they had devil horns. They were all swooping down at me and screaming and swirling and telling me in their country voices what I had to do. They were telling me to go see [a] Batman [impersonator at the mall] and everything would be okay. I needed to go see Batman and my world would be healed and made wonderful.”
What I want you to understand about McClanahan’s writing is how, with such spare prose, he’ll fool you into subdued comfort just before gutting you. It’s honest. It’s funny, but it’ll wreck you. Consider these lines from Crapalachia:
“After dinner I took a nap and I dreamed a dream about the future and in this future I was dreaming a dream about the past. But in my dreams I’m always back at Ruby’s house, and back at Ruby’s table. It’s always Sunday again and we’re all just sitting around the table like we always did. Nathan’s on one side and I’m on the other and my grandma’s on the left. And just like always she’s fixed chicken and gravy and we’re all so hungry and passing the plates — the biscuits, the mayonnaise salad, the cucumbers in vinegar, and I think to myself, even now, that this will be what the final moments of oxygen escaping from my brain will be like. It’ll be like a Sunday so long ago with all of the dead stuffing themselves full of food cooked with lard, and gravy that will once again clog their arteries and kill their hearts. It will be the feast of death and it will taste so delicious.”
This writing is remarkable because it’s local but also universal. If you’ve ever been to Real America™, it’ll fill you with nostalgia, and also dread. If you haven’t been, these books will give you a tour. There’s a reason the best ghost stories take place in the woods. Real America™ is haunted, and Scott McClanahan can show you how.
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It feels like this happened last week though it actually happened twenty years ago. Late one wintry afternoon in 1992 I found myself sitting on a sofa in a glass box in midtown Manhattan, trying to figure out how I could possibly stay awake till sundown. I had just enjoyed a long celebratory liquid lunch with Gary Fisketjon, who would soon be publishing my first novel and who, as I’d learned first-hand, is a master of an art that was then dying and is now all but dead – the art of editing fiction, line by agonizing line. Gary had gone over every word of my 362-page manuscript with a green Bic ballpoint pen, sometimes suggesting surgical cuts or ways to improve dialog, sometimes writing long insightful paragraphs on the back of a page. He stressed that these were merely suggestions, that the final call was mine, always. If I had to guess, I would say he improved my book at least by half. As I sat there on the sofa in Gary’s office, my fogged eyes started roaming across his bookshelves…
(As I re-read the preceding paragraph, I realize it’s about ancient history, a long-lost time when book editors actually edited books and they were encouraged to keep their authors fed and watered on the company dime. That paragraph also reminds me of something John Cheever wrote in the 1970s – that his first stories, published in the years after World War II, were “stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat.” Gary Fisketjon’s industrious green Bic pen seems even more remote to me from a distance of twenty years than those 1940s radios and stationery stores seemed to John Cheever from a distance of thirty years.)
…so anyway, my fogged eyes landed on a slim volume with one word on its spine: Jernigan. I got up off the sofa, crossed the small office and picked up the book. On the dust jacket the blurry figure of a man stands on a lawn in front of a suburban house. At first I thought it was the liquid lunch affecting my vision, but then I realized the picture was intentionally fuzzy. “What’s this?” I asked.
“That’s a first novel I brought out last year by a wonderful writer named David Gates,” Gary said. “Sonny Mehta, my boss, loves one-word titles. Go ahead, take it.”
I took it. I read it. I loved it. It’s the story of a messed-up guy from the New Jersey suburbs named Peter Jernigan who works a boring job in Manhattan real estate and is dealing with his wife’s death in an automobile accident by dosing himself with gin and Pamprin as his life falls apart. He ends up sleeping with the single mom of his teenage son’s girlfriend. The woman is a survivalist who keeps rabbits in her basement (for meat, not as pets). One day, in an effort to snap out of his spiritual numbness, Jernigan presses the barrel of a gun to the webbing between the thumb and index finger of his left hand, then squeezes the trigger. I’ll carry that image in my head as long as I live.
Ever since I fell in love with Jernigan I’ve been drawn to books with one-word titles – partly because Sonny Mehta loves one-word titles, but mainly because they can be so enviably concise and memorable, so perfect. At their best, one-word titles distill content to its purest essence, which is what all titles strive to do, and then they stick in the mind. Sometimes, of course, they fall flat, and much of the time they’re just lukewarm and vague or, worse, falsely grand.
Over the years I’ve developed categories and a pecking order. Here is my unscientific and by no means exhaustive taxonomy, beginning with the best and ending with the worst kinds of one-word book titles:
1. An Unforgettable Character’s Name
This category begins for me with Jernigan but also includes:
Shakespeare’s Othello, Macbeth, and Hamlet (for the last title in this trio of masterpieces I wish he’d gone with Yorick, that “fellow of infinite jest,” which no doubt puts me in a minority of one).
Walker Percy’s Lancelot (the wife-murdering narrator in a nuthouse, Lancelot Andrewes Lamar says many wise and funny things about the decline of America, such as: “What nuns don’t realize is that they look better in nun clothes than in J.C. Penney pantsuits.”)
Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (the nymphet who became an icon).
Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree (not my favorite of his novels – that would be Blood Meridian – but the things Cornelius Suttree and his roughneck Tennessee riverfront buddies do while under the influence of alcohol give a whole new kick to the word “debauched”).
Jane Austen’s Emma (I might think Emma Woodhouse is a meddling, coddled ninny, but I wouldn’t dream of saying so).
Stephen King’s Carrie (you’ve got to respect a girl who gets drenched in pig’s blood at the prom and then goes on a telekinetic rampage), Christine (what’s not to love about a homicidal Plymouth Fury?), and It (that maniac clown Pennywise deserves such a tersely dismissive moniker).
2. Place Names That Drip With Atmosphere
Elmore Leonard’s Djibouti (just saying the word makes it possible to conjure a place full of pirates, thugs, widowmakers, scorching sunshine, and tourists with a death wish; Leonard is a serial user of one-word titles, including the less memorable Raylan, Pronto, Killshot, Touch, Bandits, Glitz, Stick, Gunsights, Swag, and Hombre).
Gore Vidal’s Duluth (alluring precisely because it’s so imprecise – what could possibly be interesting about a Minnesota port town on Lake Superior? Plenty. Vidal is another serial user of one-word titles, including Williwaw, Messiah, Kalki, Creation, Burr, Lincoln, Hollywood, and Empire).
Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! (that exclamation point befits the over-the-top setting, a fading alligator theme park in the moist loins of Florida).
Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (your first thought is Biblical – balm of Gilead or Mount Gilead – but the title of this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is the name of a town in Iowa where the God-infused protagonist, a dying preacher, is writing a long letter to his young son; Robinson’s other novels are titled Housekeeping and Home).
Geoffrey Wolff’s Providence (this title, like all good titles, has layers of meaning: the novel is set in the crumbling capital of Rhode Island – “a jerkwater that outsiders bombed past on their way to Cape Cod” – but this Providence is visited by surprising gusts of divine providence, God’s inscrutable ways of touching a menagerie of less-than-perfect characters, including mobsters, thieves, patrician lawyers, cokeheads, and crooked cops).
Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland (alas, the title refers to a fictional hippie outpost in northern California, not to that sweaty little armpit in the New Jersey pine barrens – now that would have been a ripe setting for a Pynchon novel).
Marshall Frady’s Southerners (fluorescent non-fiction about the people who inhabit a haunted place, it’s one of my all-time favorite books).
Then, on the downside, there’s James Michener’s Hawaii (a title that’s about as evocative as a pushpin on a map, much like his other generic place-name titles – Chesapeake, Alaska, Poland, Texas, Mexico, and Space).
3. One Little Word That Sums Up Big Consequences
Josephine Hart’s Damage (edited by Sonny Mehta, the novel’s title deftly sums up what results when a member of the British Parliament develops an obsessive sexual relationship with his son’s fiancee; Jeremy Irons, at his absolute smarmy best, plays the MP in the movie version of the book. Hart, who died last year, also published the novels Sin and Oblivion).
James Dickey’s Deliverance (refers to what it feels like to return home to the Atlanta suburbs after surviving a nice relaxing canoe trip in the Georgia woods that turns into a nightmare of hillbilly sodomy and murder).
Martin Amis’ novel Money (a raunchy hymn to the lubricant that greased the Reagan/Thatcher decade, it’s bursting with the things that made America great – “fast food, sex shows, space games, slot machines, video nasties, nude mags, drink, pubs, fighting, television, handjobs”); and his memoir Experience (with a cover that says it all: the future bad boy of Brit letters as a pre-teen towhead, with a scowl on his face and an unlit cigarette plugged between his lips).
William S. Burroughs’ Junky (though written under a pseudonym, the title of this highly autobiographical 1953 novel refers to what you will become if you inject heroin into your veins on a regular basis; a sequel, Queer, was written earlier but not published until 1985).
Harry Crews’ Car (you are what you eat, and Herman Mack, in a twist that out-Christines Christine, sets out to eat a 1971 Ford Maverick from bumper to bumper; rest in peace, Harry Crews).
4. Words That Ache So Hard To Become Brands You Can Practically See Them Sweat
The absolute pinnacle of this bottom-of-the-birdcage category is half-smart Malcolm Gladwell’s runaway bestseller Blink (as in, how long it takes for us to develop supposedly accurate first impressions; for a much more nuanced and intelligent treatment of this fascinating subject, check out Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow).
Not far behind is right-wing goddess Ann Coulter’s Godless (an attempt to prove that liberalism is America’s state religion and its tin gods are recycling, Darwinism, global warming, gay rights, abortion rights, and teachers’ unions. According to this harridan-hottie, “The following sentence makes sense to liberals: President Clinton saved the Constitution by repeatedly ejaculating on a fat Jewish girl in the Oval Office.” Low blow! Monica Lewinsky wasn’t fat!)
Robin Cook’s Contagion (possibly a Freudian slip, the title might refer to what all brand-name authors like Cook secretly hope their books will induce in readers: a rapidly spreading, uncontrollable itch to spend money on schlock).
5. One-Letter Titles
You can’t get any poorer than dead, as Flannery O’Connor reminded us, and if you’re a book title you can’t be any more concise than a single letter. Writers who have boiled the contents of their books down to a single letter tend to be in the high-literary camp, which would seem to suggest, counter-intuitively, that one-letter titles are the work of expansive, not reductive, imaginations. Here are a few, from A to Z:
Andy Warhol’s A (you’d have to be zonked on some killer shit to make any sense of this gibberish, but let’s be charitable and remember that Warhol was a great artist).
Fred Chappell’s C (this writer of glorious poetry and fiction is celebrated in his native South but criminally under-appreciated in other quarters of the country; his title is taken from the Roman numeral for 100, which is the number of poems in this superb collection).
Tom McCarthy’s C (the third letter of the alphabet is used more nebulously in this novel, which brims with cats, cocaine, cocoons, and code as it travels to Cairo with a protagonist named Serge Carrefax; McCarthy’s first novel was titled Remainder).
John Updike’s S. (it’s the initial of the novel’s protagonist, Sarah Worth, part superwoman and part slut, a disaffected wife who leaves her husband and her home on the North Shore to pursue her guru at a commune in the Arizona desert).
Thomas Pynchon’s V. (no, Pynchon’s first novel is not Vineland minus the i-n-e-l-a-n-d; it’s a woman’s initial, or is it the shape the two storylines make as they converge?).
Georges Perec’s W (the name of an allegorical island off the coast of Chile that resembles a concentration camp).
Vassilis Vassilikos’ Z (the last word, or letter, on political thrillers, it’s about the 1963 assassination of leftist Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis; Costa-Gavras made it into a hit movie starring Yves Montand).
In closing, I should note that seven of the 32 books on the current New York Times hardcover fiction and non-fiction best-seller lists – a healthy 22 percent – have one word titles: to wit: Betrayal, Drift, Imagine, Wild, Unbroken, Quiet, and Imperfect. Turns out Sonny Mehta was on to something. Concision, like sex, always sells.
Double murderer Gary Lee Rock (center) after his capture, before his unsuccessful suicide attempt.
There are certain experiences so mystifying, so unsettling, so flat-out weird that we can hope to understand them only through books. I had a cluster of such experiences in the late 1970s that haunted me for more than thirty years – until just recently when I came to two very different books that finally helped me understand what I’d lived through and how my response to those events shaped me as a writer. The books are Wisconsin Death Trip, a genre-bending work of history by Michael Lesy, and American Pastoral, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Philip Roth. It would be hard to imagine two more unalike books, and yet they spoke to my mystification with one voice. But before I tell you about these books, I should tell you about what happened back in the 1970s.
In November of 1976, on the Monday after Jimmy Carter was elected president, I reported for work as a cub reporter at Public Opinion, the daily newspaper in Chambersburg, Pa., a hamlet of 20,000 souls in the dead middle of the state just above the Mason-Dixon Line. I was spectacularly unqualified for the job. I had taken one creative writing course in college, had never studied journalism, and could offer as credentials just three short sketches I’d written for my college newspaper. But I was determined to become a writer – a real writer, a novelist – and like many before me I believed I needed to serve my apprenticeship in the whirlwind of a daily newspaper’s city room. So after graduating from college I spent months knocking on newspaper doors up and down the Eastern seaboard, getting told again and again to come back when I had some experience. This was the post-Watergate season, it was a buyer’s market, and I didn’t have much to sell. But the editor at Public Opinion decided to take a chance on me. At $140 a week – with a strict Gannett corporate policy of no overtime pay – it wasn’t much of a gamble. Naturally I jumped at the job.
From the very first day I sensed that I had landed in a strange place. The paper’s star reporter, Brad Bumsted, was working an ongoing story about a man named Robert Bear who’d been “shunned” by his conservative Reformed Mennonite congregation for disobeying doctrine. Church members were forbidden from doing business with Bear, and his wife and children were not allowed to talk to him, or even look at him. The poor man was coming unglued. Every day I received other reminders that I was deep in “Pennsylvania Dutch” country – bearded, straw-hatted men and their bonneted wives clopping along the rural roads in horse-drawn carriages; similarly attired men, known as “black-bumper Amish,” driving black cars with blackened chrome; names like Slaybaugh and Klinefelter larding the phone book; and diners serving “Dutch” (that is, German) dishes I’d never heard of, including shoofly pie and a dubious breakfast meat called scrapple.
While the Amish and Mennonites struck me as benign cults, there were other things going on that were far from benign. The first I experienced at close range was a local legend named Merle Unger, a charming rogue and petty criminal who had a history of breaking out of the county jail at night to visit his girlfriend, then breaking back into the jail before deputies counted noses in the morning. But on one of his breakouts Unger made the mistake of killing an off-duty cop during an armed robbery in Hagerstown, Md. The charm was off the rogue. The editor sent me to Easton, Md., to write sidebars while Brad Bumsted covered Unger’s murder trial. After the jury returned a guilty verdict, One of Unger’s lawyers got so drunk celebrating with the cops that he tipped over his chair and landed flat on his back, cackling like a hyena. The cops roared with glee. It was like an out-of-kilter drug trip: a petty criminal who breaks into jail and becomes a cop killer; a defense attorney who celebrates a guilty verdict.
There were far darker local legends. Public Opinion had won a Pulitzer Prize 10 years before my arrival for its coverage of strange goings-on in Shade Gap, a tiny town tucked into the Allegheny Mountains, which begin their rise just west of Chambersburg. There, an ex-convict and ex-mental patient named William Diller Hollenbaugh – known locally as “The Mountain Man” and “Bicycle Pete” – terrorized the community before kidnapping a teenage girl and holding her captive in the wild mountain terrain for seven days while authorities mounted the largest manhunt in Pennsylvania history. Eventually they shot Hollenbaugh dead while rescuing the girl. It was like some Yankee version of Deliverance.
Then there was the case of Debbie Sue Kline, a 19-year-old hospital employee in nearby Waynesboro who disappeared on her way home from work in the summer of 1976 and had not been seen since. In January of 1977, Public Opinion reported that Dorothy Allison, a well known psychic from Nutley, N.J., had come to town at the Kline family’s request to help police with their stalled investigation. Allison traveled the route between the hospital and the Kline home, she visited the missing girl’s bedroom, touched clothes, ran her hands over the bed sheets, slipped the girl’s class ring on her finger and left it there. Allison told police they would find a skeleton on a dump or in a junkyard in a town with double letters in its name. Then she left for New York City to undergo hypnosis to help her pinpoint the exact location of the girl’s remains.
“Police said the woman promised to identify the car used in the alleged abduction, the license number of the vehicle, the names of the people involved, the route they took and the location of Debbie,” Public Opinion reported. “Police credit Allison with ‘a fantastic track record,’ and said Allison revealed things concerning the investigation ‘that you wouldn’t believe.'”
It’s likely those newspaper reports made their way into the Franklin County Prison because there, on the following Wednesday morning, an inmate named Richard Lee Dodson offered to lead police to Kline’s body. He took them to a landfill near the town of Fannettsburg and pointed to a frozen, nearly fleshless skeleton. Dodson said his accomplice in the kidnapping, rape and murder was Ronald Henninger, who was then serving a manslaughter sentence in an Illinois prison but had been free on parole the summer Debbie Sue Kline was killed.
And finally, most spectacularly, there was the Fourth of July weekend in 1977. On that Saturday morning, Gary Lee Rock, an ex-Marine with an “expert” marksmanship rating, did something unimaginable. Unhappy in love, unhappy with his $3.50-an-hour clerk’s job at the local Army depot – exactly what I was making at the newspaper – Rock awoke with a hangover in his rural home. For reasons he could not explain later, he dressed in fatigue pants, combat boots and his Marine dog tags, then flew into a rage, smashing plates and windows and furniture. He doused the interior of his home and a nearby shed with gasoline, lit them up, then crouched nearby in the woods with a 300 Savage rifle, a shotgun, a Marine Corps knife and boxes of ammunition.
When a neighbor, alerted by an explosion, came running up Rock’s driveway, Rock shot him once through the heart, dead. When the revered chief of the local volunteer fire department arrived in his car, Rock shot him in the head and right arm, also dead. Rock fired more shots through the windshield of the first fire engine on the scene, wounding two firefighters. Then he melted into the woods, where he was captured that evening after state troopers wounded him with a salvo of shotgun pellets. After coming out of surgery, Rock smashed an IV bottle and slashed his own wrist and neck, but failed to kill himself. Of course this lurid, nearly ludicrous spasm of violence made national news.
All of this – the Mountain Man, the shunned Mennonite, the charming cop killer and his drunk lawyer, the psychic, the dead nurse, the burning house, the homicidal/suicidal ex-Marine, the dead fire chief – all of this was overwhelming to me. Kidnapping, ostracism, the paranormal, rape, murder, insanity, arson, more murder, attempted suicide – it added up to a collective nervous breakdown. And it all happened in a charming American town that looked like a Norman Rockwell painting.
Wisconsin Death Trip lives up to Walter Benjamin’s famous dictum that all great works of literature must either dissolve a genre or invent one. The genre Michael Lesy invented with this astonishing book might be called Portrait of a Society in a State of Mental and Physical Collapse. Greil Marcus aptly described the book as “absolutely a thing in itself: its own construct, its own nightmare, its own scream.”
Through photographs, newspaper accounts and his own impressionistic essays, Lesy tells the story of what happened in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, in the last decade of the 19th century, the so-called “Gay Nineties.” It was a time of paranoia, disease, economic upheaval and harrowing violence. For those who couldn’t take it, suicide came in many flavors: arenic, carbolic acid, strychnine, morphine, an insecticide called “paris green,” plus hanging, jumping in front of a train, ingesting match heads, slitting your own throat, plunging your head in a barrel of water and of course, this being America, self-inflicted gunshot wound. If you didn’t kill yourself you had a fair chance of getting murdered, or starving or freezing to death, or dying from a smorgasbord of diseases that included diphtheria, smallpox, cerebral meningitis, typhoid fever and croup.
Fire was as common as rain. “In the early days,” Lesy writes, “people set fires for business as well as pleasure. The courthouse got burned down before it was even built in 1857. In 1861 the town’s entire business block, valued at $30,000, went up in smoke.”
People saw ghosts, they saw 40-foot-long reptiles in the river, they were routinely carted off to the insane asylum at Mendota. The photographs of these people, taken by town photographer Charles Van Shaick, paint a bifurcated portrait of life in a small Midwestern town: on one hand there are the predictable pictures of weddings, funerals, picnics, barber shops, musical ensembles, groups of sawmill workers, men with their hunting trophies, their drinking buddies, their tractors and animals; and then there are the pictures that look like Diane Arbus prototypes, portraits of dwarves, amputees, babies in coffins, nudists, snake handlers, madwomen.
Lesy’s method is to lay all this out with zero inflection, just a steady drumbeat of facts that indeed darken into a nightmare. It’s as though the denizens of Winesburg, Ohio went on a decade-long amphetamine bender and killing spree. By the time I got to the end of the book I had begun to see my experiences in Chambersburg in a fresh light – not as implausible aberrations, but as modern manifestations of dark impulses that have always lurked beneath the surface of every American place. What’s extraordinary, Lesy concludes, is that the things that happened in Black River Falls – and, by implication, in Chambersburg – are not at all extraordinary. In a nice bit of understatement, he quotes from an 1897 issue of the American Journal of Sociology: “It is a popular belief that large cities are the great centers of social corruption, and the special causes of social degeneration, while rural districts and country towns are quite free from unmoral influence…. Yet the country has its own social evils.”
Or, as a close friend never tires of reminding me, “The truly weird shit rarely happens in big cities; it almost always happens in small towns and suburbia and the boondocks.” I have come to believe that while this is not an iron-clad fact – the Son of Sam was terrorizing New York City during the summer of 1977 – it does pick at the scab of something approaching an unpleasant truth. I’m thinking about Dick Hickock and Perry Smith slaughtering the Clutter family in their remote western Kansas farmhouse, a horror immortalized by Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. I’m thinking about Joan Didion’s unforgettable piece of reportage, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” which tells the story of how weather and dislocation and history (or lack of it) led a pregnant mother of three to douse her sleeping husband with gasoline and burn him to death inside the family Volkswagen on a desolate stretch of southern California desert. Twenty miles from where I’m writing these words, police have just discovered the remains of the tenth victim of a possible serial killer on a remote Long Island beach. A few weeks ago a woman in the small upstate town of Newburgh drove into the Hudson River with three of her children in the car, killing them all. Such acts have become emblematic of what Walker Percy called these “dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A.”
In American Pastoral, Philip Roth puts a name to these dark American impulses. The novel tells the story of a sensationally handsome and athletic Jewish boy from Newark named Seymour “Swede” Levov who marries a former Miss New Jersey, takes over his father’s thriving glove factory, and moves with his wife and daughter into a stone farmhouse in Old Rimrock, out past the suburbs, out in the gorgeous green folds of an America that still looks much as it looked before the Revolutionary War. There in 1968, as a way of protesting the Vietnam War, the Swede’s teenage daughter, a life-long stutterer, plants a bomb in the local post office that kills a respected doctor, forcing the girl to go underground and effectively demolishing the Swede’s immaculate world. Roth writes that the Swede becomes the victim of something unthinkable:
…the angry, rebarbative spitting-out daughter with no interest whatever in being the next successful Levov, flushing him out of hiding as if he were a fugitive – initiating the Swede into the displacement of another America entirely, the daughter and the decade blasting to smithereens his particular form of utopian thinking, the plague America infiltrating the Swede’s castle and there infecting everyone. The daughter who transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral – into the indigenous American berserk.
And so, thanks to books, I finally came to terms with the mystifying things I’d witnessed and written about in Chambersburg more than thirty years ago. Books showed me that those mysteries were not extraordinary or even unprecedented, and they actually have a name, and that name is The Indigenous American Berserk.
My first published drawing: Cop killer Merle Unger (left) with his defense attorneys during his murder trial.
After I finished reading those books I went back to Chambersburg to scroll through microfilm of Public Opinion from the 1970s. I wanted to see if I could recapture my response to the events I’d lived through and written about, and how that response had shaped me as a writer.
Microfilm is a wonderful corrective for a faulty memory. It reminded me that Merle Unger’s murder trial took place during my very first weeks on the job, and that it was a dream assignment. For one thing, my name was sure to be on the front page every day. Better yet, while Brad Bumsted covered the trial I was free to write from the margins of the main event. I wrote about the ankle irons Merle Unger wore to court every day – a badge of honor for such an accomplished escape artist. I wrote about the prosecutor persuading the two local newspapers to keep a lid on pre-trial publicity so a slam-dunk murder trial wouldn’t get yanked from his jurisdiction – which had the added benefit of giving Bumsted and me a virtual exclusive on the story. I interviewed Unger’s grim mother as we waited for the jury to deliver its guilty verdict. I even drew a sketch of Unger and his defense attorneys in the courtroom, my first published drawing.
After the bloody Fourth of July weekend in 1977, on the other hand, Chambersburg became the setting for a media circus. Like everyone on the Public Opinion staff, I contributed to the saturation coverage of the shootings and their aftermath. And I hated it, hated jockeying with other reporters for scraps of news, hated the obviousness and falseness of covering a manufactured news event. Simply put, I hated being part of a pack.
As I read more microfilm, I remembered that I was always much happier writing stories about people who existed outside the news, stories that I felt were somehow my own – about a struggling mystery novelist, a taxidermist, a night nurse, a man who built a futuristic solar house, a puppeteer, a peach farmer, a teenage Emergency Medical Technician who delivered a baby in the back of an ambulance as it screamed toward the hospital. On the day of the fire chief’s funeral, I wrote a by-lined story about a schoolteacher announcing his quixotic plan to run against an entrenched Congressman. The story was not big news, but it happened outside the tent of the media circus, and it was mine. The fire chief was not yet in the ground and already I was distancing myself from the pack.
I now realize that this attraction to people on the margins puts me in good company. While reviewing The Silent Season of a Hero, the new collection of sports writing by Gay Talese, I noted that he was drawn to people on the downslope of greatness and to those who worked in the shadows of the sporting world – boxing referees, timekeepers, horseshoe makers, agents, midget wrestlers. Then I read an article in the current issue of GQ magazine about David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel, The Pale King. In the article, John Jeremiah Sullivan recalls what happened when the magazine assigned Wallace to write a story about a presidential candidate’s speech writers: “Early in 2008, GQ asked him to write about Obama’s speeches or, more largely, about American political rhetoric. It was still a somewhat gassy idea as presented to him, but Wallace saw the possibilities, so we started making inquiries to the Obama campaign, and even made reservations for him to be in Denver during the convention. Our thought was to get him as close to the head speechwriters (and so as close to Obama) as possible. But Wallace said, very politely, that this wasn’t what interested him. He wanted to be with a worker bee on the speechwriting team – to find out how the language was used by, as he put it, ‘the ninth guy on the bench.’ It also seemed like maybe a temperament thing, that he would be more comfortable reporting away from the glare.”
This made perfect sense to me, this idea of wanting to talk to the ninth guy on the bench, of being more comfortable reporting away from the glare. I’m sure it makes sense to Gay Talese, too. This has nothing to do with stage fright, or a fear of going after big game, or the reporter’s eternal dread of getting scooped. It’s something much deeper, and maybe much darker, than that. It’s an understanding that it’s so hard to get another human being to open up to you, and it’s so scary to crawl inside them if they do open up to you, that you’re wise to get rid of as many impediments as possible. And one of the most forbidding impediments is that glare Wallace and Talese instinctively avoided. Whenever there are bright lights, clusters of cameras and microphones, spin doctors and handlers, packs of hungry rivals with notebooks, the writer’s chances of getting something genuine, or even merely unique, shrink monstrously. I experienced this so many times that it is one of the few things I absolutely know to be true.
I began to understand this on the Fourth of July weekend in 1977, and it explains why I feel grateful that I’ve never had to cover a political convention or campaign, that I’ve had to attend very few press conferences, and that I’ve had to interview just one former president and one movie star.
As I learned from reading that scratchy old microfilm, I’ve always preferred to write about interesting nobodies. Maybe it’s a temperament thing. And as I learned from reading those books by Michael Lesy and Philip Roth, the dark beast that lurks beneath the glossy surface of American life can show itself anytime and anywhere, from the smallest town to the most bucolic countryside. Because it’s everywhere and it has always been with us and it always will be. Those two books also taught me that, somehow, it’s a strange comfort to be able to put a name to such a thing. Which is another way of saying they taught me the power of the written word.
(Images courtesy the author.)
I have seriously mixed feelings about this book. First off, it is part of the group of post-war novels by/about American men who are peeved because getting old is boring and their wives aren’t very sexy. Please forgive my bawdy language, but let’s call them the My Dick novels, with major sub-genres My Dick is Great and I Feel Bad About my Dick. I used to read these without discrimination, but one day the veil fell from my eyes and I realized that these books could bring about a serious crisis of self-esteem for me, a lady who loves a man. One doesn’t need constant reminders that one’s significant other will stare in horror at one’s posterior fifteen years from now, and try to do it with the underaged person responsible for looking after the children for whom, theoretically, one will have compromised one’s parts in order to expel. Nor does one need to be told that, even if you should have the marvelous good fortune to keep your libido and your teeth and your satin skin and sense of humor, it won’t make a whit of difference, as the man in your life will be pulled inexorably toward sex with teens. I don’t care if these accounts are based on life’s hard facts, and are therefore imbued with a verisimilitude that some say makes art great. Some things are just tedious after the hundredth time.
I’m told that women get increasingly humorless as well as physically repulsive as the years go by, but I like these novels if they are really funny. The Water-Method Man, for example, is one my favorite novels, although John Irving is an important figure in the My Dick movement.
Deliverance by James Dickey, though, is the opposite of funny. The leather vest that Burt Reynolds is wearing on the cover of my copy is funny, but that is the only thing. Most people are familiar with the storyline, immortalized as it was by Reynolds and said vest. For those of you who haven’t heard the twang of dueling banjos, here’s what happens: the narrator has three friends, one of whom is very muscular (he’s the narrator’s favorite). The narrator also wants to fondle the girl who is a model at his ad agency and has a golden eye or something. The narrator and his three friends decide to go canoeing on a river without a map or a clue; they pack some beers and bows and arrows (naturally) and hit the road. It’s all very sinister from the get-go.
Then they’re on the river, and terrifying rednecks (who have done more toward furthering redneck discrimination than any other rednecks in art), rape one of them. The rednecks are about to assault the narrator, but the muscled one, Lewis, shoots one of them through the chest with an arrow. The other redneck gets away and hides, kills one of the friends, Lewis breaks his leg, and then it’s up to the narrator to stop being such a soft-living, house-having nancy all the time and find that bastard and kill him with his primal man essence. Which he does, after some feats of strength and things that sound like they hurt a lot.
All of this is told in a self-consciously poetic way, as if the author wrote it while sitting behind a duck blind with a camouflaged typewriter, looking at a picture of Walt Whitman and listening to Wagner. Sometimes I was (very marginally) enjoying it and sometimes I was thinking that if I must read about scary, disgusting things I’d rather get my copy of The Stand out from under the bed and at least have a good time. Then I wouldn’t have to read sentences like this one: “The standing there was so good, so fresh and various and continuous, so vital and uncaring around my genitals, that I hated to leave it.” Good grief.
Why is this book one of the best books of the century? Why, Modern Library? Really, the more I think about it the more I think it’s less “mixed feelings” I have about it than “fierce loathing.”
My main complaint is this: Bobby has been raped, Lewis the muscled one has killed the redneck, and they’re all four standing around talking about what to do, and the narrator goes ahead and says:
I moved away from Bobby’s red face. None of this was his fault, but he felt tainted to me. I remembered how he had looked over the log, how willing to let anything be done to him, and how high his voice was when he screamed.
What a super attitude to have about your friend who was sexually assaulted at gunpoint! Ecce homo! Basically the narrator is feeling pretty smug about not being the one to get “cornholed” (his charming term), and about the fact that dreamy Lewis was put out of commission and it was up to him to save the day! I’m not one of those literal-minded turds who thinks Lolita or, I don’t know, The Collector, are offensive, because I understand that you can write about things and not do them or think them yourself. It is not the novelist’s job to provide an edifying story or a lovable narrator. However, not only was I pretty lukewarm about the alleged Everyman of Deliverance, the writing style did not, for me, elevate things in any meaningful way.
It felt like a missed opportunity, in a sense. A novelist could use a moment like this to provide a neat example of how rape culture and victim-shaming hurt everyone, men and women alike. I mean, the narrator’s basic position on the issues is that sexual assault victims are embarrassing and gross, and the best thing to do is to a) shun them and b) kill everyone. There’s a lot of pithy stuff there.
I’m likely missing something. I think there is something zeitgeisty happening in the novel, something to which I’m not privy. Maybe it’s a generational thing. Maybe it’s a Vietnam thing. Obviously, it’s a dick(ey) thing.
On that note, Happy Thanksgiving.